Wyclef on 60 Minutes: "I Will Make A Dent So Others Can Break Walls"

  • Posted on: 11 January 2009
  • By: Bryan Schaaf

Wyclef Jean is a talented and electic musician whose message has always been one of non-violence, unity, and triumphing over adversity.  He has become a roving ambassador for both Haiti and hip hop alike.  As a philanthropist, his Yele Foundation is a positive force for change in Cite Soleil, Gonaives, and elsewhere.  During an interview today on 60 minutes he spoke about how he seeks to make a difference for and give hope to Haiti's urban youth. Click here to learn more about his music and here to learn about Yele. A summary of the interview is below.


To live the life of Wyclef Jean is to believe that almost anything is possible. Wyclef is a Grammy Award winning multimillionaire rock star who comes from Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. He's one of thousands of Haitians who immigrate to the U.S. And many never return. But not Wyclef: he goes back to Haiti often, using all of his personal wealth to help his impoverished country.

Wyclef's passion and determination have made him a hero to millions of Haitians. Correspondent Scott Pelley got to see firsthand how they feel about Wyclef Jean when they visited Cite Soleil, one of the most infamous slums on Earth. Cite Soleil is a sprawling slum by the bay of Port-au-Prince. Half a million people live there, many of them next to a garbage dump. The name means "Sun City," but despite its name, this is a breeding ground for disease and despair, gangs and violence.


"They know you're here," Pelley remarked, hearing the cheers. "Man, they are coming by the hundreds, by the thousands." They're coming for Wyclef. When he's around, it's as if he's the only ray of hope in "Sun City." "Yeah, they're not gonna give up. Yet. So we gonna get out and do a little walking," Wyclef told Pelley, as the crowd around them grew and grew.


They found themselves in the middle of a spontaneous homecoming for a Haitian icon who left the island nearly 30 years ago. Wyclef Jean is one of the world's most recognizable stars, performing before sold-out audiences, selling more than 50 million records in a 20-year career. His music is an eclectic mix, rooted in his Haitian DNA. Known primarily as a hip hop artist, he has a gift for guitar that reminds many of Jimi Hendrix.


"I came from Haiti. English is not my first language. I came to the land of the free, the land of the opportunities. I made somethin' of myself," Wyclef told Pelley.  Asked what he thinks would have happened had he never left Haiti, he said, "I think about that all the time. I always think 'Why you, Clef? There's close to ten million people in that place. Why you?'"


He comes from a country both beautiful and destitute. The average Haitian lives on less than $300 a year. Half the people scratch out a meager living on the land. The others are packed into cities like the capital, Port-au-Prince. When 60 Minutes came with Wyclef, he was greeted like a head of state. To most Haitians, he's the living incarnation of their dream, someone who got out, struck it rich, but didn't forget where he came from.


"These kids, they could identify with me, 'cause they say, 'He looks like us, and he talks our language,'" he told Pelley.  In 2005, Wyclef created a charity that seems designed to attack all of Haiti’s problems at once. It's called "Yele Haiti". He spent nearly a quarter of a million dollars of his own money to start it. And now, with donations and sponsors, it has an annual budget of $3 million.


"The first thing we have to do is to get these kids to rise up. They self-esteems. They always walking in the streets with their head like this. They felt like everybody forgot them. So, if I could start an organization where there's programs, and they feel like people care. I felt that that would be a start," Wyclef explained. "Yele" derives from a Creole word that means to scream. Asked why he chose this name, Wyclef told Pelley, "Because I want you to hear us."


Wyclef's Yele Haiti helps feed 50,000 people a month with food donated by the U.N. Yele is spending $100,000 a year on athletic programs for kids, and it sponsors almost 7,000 students, contributing nearly a million dollars a year to schools, supplies and meals for the children. Yele's programs are aimed at changing the bleak outlook of Haiti's young people. But with limited resources and 60 percent of the population under the age of 25 and mostly unemployed, it will take a miracle.


It's a miracle that can't happen fast enough in Cite Soleil. "Paint this picture for me. What are the needs here in Cite Soleil?" Pelley asked. "We need to create jobs. We need job creations here," Wyclef explained. "But you know what people say about this. This is the poorest neighborhood in the entire Western Hemisphere, maybe one of the poorest in the world. It's too dangerous. You can't do things here," Pelley said.


"My response to the critics is that, you know, past the danger is opportunity," Wyclef replied. People reached out to touch him, shoved family pictures at him, and pressed their ID cards into his hand. The IDs were handed to him, Wyclef explained, because the people want to work for Yele.


Asked what his goals are, Wyclef said, "If I can get to a level where I start to get the rest of the world to care about Haiti, I will feel that Yele has made a difference." But truth is, the developed world is tired of Haiti. Billions of dollars in aid have been spent and yet the country is all but a failed state. U.N. troops have been there since 2004 to ease political violence. Food is moved through the city in an armored convoy.


Wyclef found that navigating the halls of the U.S. Congress has been just as difficult. He's testified to committees asking them to make Haiti a priority and he’s lobbied Washington powerbrokers for more aid. For a rock star who didn’t go to college, it’s been quiet an education.


He got there with fame and fortune, built on hits like "Hips Don't Lie" for reasons that are obvious: Wyclef wrote it and produced it and performed it with Shakira. His music is often about beauty over brutality, dreams over despair, songs of hope summed up in this lyric. Wyclef’s journey started in a village called Lasserre, a town that still throws a celebration when he comes home. He showed 60 Minutes the one-room house where he lived with six relatives.


"Every time I’m in this room it's almost like surreal. Pinch myself and I say to myself 'Did I really come from this room?' I actually came from this room," Wyclef explained. When he was nine, Wyclef and his brother left the village with no electricity, and found themselves looking out of a plane onto New York City at night. "I looked at my brother and say 'Yes, we have arrived. The city of diamonds. We're rich now,'" he remembered.


"Rich" was a housing project in Brooklyn where they joined the rest of the family. His father was a disciplinarian and a fiery Christian minister. Wyclef's music career started in the choir, but when his taste grew to rap, his father disapproved. "He wanted us to be in the church. Once we drifted outside the church, that's when the clash started," Wyclef explained. "He said, 'If I ever hear you listenin' to this thing called crap music - crap music, I will kill you.' I said, 'Dad, it's not 'crap,' it's called rap.' He said, 'Crap, rap, whatever.'"


Despite his father's objections, Wyclef and two friends started "The Fugees." Their album, called "The Score," won two Grammys and is still the top selling hip hop album ever. Even so, years later, when Wyclef performed at the White House, his father still wouldn't come.


Wyclef told Pelley his father had shown up at one of his concerts.  In 2001, Wyclef played Carnegie Hall. He conducted an all star ensemble, showing off his musical range. And there was one big surprise: "I saw my dad on the balcony And I'm like, 'Yes. My dad is here.'"


Asked what his father told him after the concert, Wyclef said, "He says, 'Do you know when you make it in life?' 'Alright, don't, dad. I just want you tell me you love me, I had a good concert.' I still can't get it. 'You know you make it when you show up. You see everybody. You see black, white. You see Europeans. You see Africans. They don't see your color. They see the man. You made it.'"


The success his father saw in him, has made Wyclef a force for change in Haiti. Four years ago, when Port-au-Prince was a battlefield, Wyclef used his influence to mediate among warring gangs to stop the fighting. "It's a revolution of the mind and this is what we're trying to do is to get everybody to start thinking with their minds and not with guns," he said.


People are also starting to ask whether Wyclef intends to capitalize on his popularity to take his career in another direction. Asked if he'd want to be president, he told Pelley, "No, that's the whole catch. Like I don't wanna be president. I can't trade my rock and roll life for that."


"It's good to be a rock star," Pelley remarked, laughing. "I like the rock and roll star better, baby," Wyclef replied. But there hasn’t been much time for music lately - Haiti keeps pulling him back. Three hurricanes and a tropical storm hit the island recently. Wyclef returned to help distribute aid. The storms left hundreds dead, half a million homeless, and crops wiped out. 60 Minutes flew with him over the flooded city of Gonaives. While touring the area, a man climbed up and placed Wyclef's hand on his head as if it was a benediction - as if Wyclef Jean was the only one who could make a difference - in a nation that has found rock bottom.


"This is basically what I was chosen for," Wyclef told Pelley. Asked if it's a mission from God, Wyclef said, "I do believe that it comes from God. "You know, as much as is being done, the needs are so much greater. And I wonder whether you worry that you're really not gonna be able to make much of a difference. A dent, maybe. But perhaps not a difference," Pelley remarked. "What I plan to do is I'm gonna make a serious dent," Wyclef vowed. "And I'm hoping that after I make this dent, those kids behind me could help break those walls"

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